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Roberto Matta - Biography and Legacy

Chilean Painter

Born: November 11, 1911 - Santiago, Chile
Died: November 23, 2002 - Civitavecchia, Italy
Movements and Styles:

Biography of Roberto Matta


Known primarily as 'Matta,' Roberto Antonio Sebastian Matta Echaurren was born in Santiago, Chile on November 11th, 1912. The son of a Chilean father and a Spanish mother, Matta grew up in a strictly Catholic, upper middle-class home. His mother was well read and highly cultured, fostering Matta's interest in art, literature, and languages. He received a classical, Jesuit education, and enjoyed a comfortable childhood during a period of widespread economic hardship in Chile.

Early Training

From 1929 through 1933, Matta studied architecture and interior design at the Sacre Coeur Jesuit College and the Universidad Catolica of Santiago. In his final year of school, Matta devised an ambitious architectural project called the "League of Religions." Signaling an early interest in both biomorphism and fantastical spaces, his building designs were modeled after suggestively posed female bodies. Not long after this project, Matta left behind his privileged upbringing and conservative education to join the Merchant Marines. He settled in Paris, France, in 1935, becoming an apprentice in modernist architect Le Corbusier's studio. He stayed on to work with Le Corbusier for the next two years.

During this time, Matta established close friendships with several members of the Latin American literary avant-garde. His relationships with Frederico Garcia Lorca, Pablo Neruda, and Gabriela Mistral proved particularly influential. It was through Lorca that Matta was introduced to Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí. Dalí, in turn, encouraged the young artist to show some of his drawings to André Breton. Sensing an emerging talent and common spirit, Breton bought several of Matta's drawings and invited him to officially join the Surrealist group in 1937.

The same year, Matta worked with the architects designing the Spanish Republican pavilion at the Paris International Exhibition. Here, Matta saw Pablo Picasso's seminal work, Guernica (1937). The work's mixture of formal abstraction and social consciousness had a lasting impact on the development of Matta's own personal style and artistic practice. Equally as influential was Marcel Duchamp's Large Glass (The Bride Stripped Bare by Her bachelors, Even) (1915-23), which Matta also encountered around this time. He later referenced this work explicitly in The Bachelors Twenty Years After (1943), and he continued to reference Large Glass throughout his career. Duchamp's influence can be seen particularly in the complex multi-dimensional spaces and fantastical machines that define much of Matta's mid-career work.

Mature Period

Matta's earliest works were abstract crayon drawings produced using the Surrealist practice of automatism. In these drawings, he referenced organic growth patterns, microscopic views of plants, and the non-Euclidean geometry described by mathematician Jules Henri Poincare. Matta transitioned from drawing to oil painting in 1938, while working in Brittany with the British artist Gordon Onslow Ford. The works that Matta created around this time were the first of what he called his "Psychological Morphologies." In these paintings, Matta explored his subconscious mind through a language of abstract forms and constantly evolving, multi-dimensional spaces. Matta also referred to these works as "Inscapes," with the implication that they depicted the interior landscape of the artist's mind, interconnected with his external reality.

Matta was well established within the Surrealist group by the time that he was forced to flee Europe for America in the fall of 1939. When Matta arrived in New York City, he was the youngest and most outgoing of Surrealist emigres. These traits, combined with a shared interest in automatist art-making techniques, allowed Matta to quickly form relationships with several of the young New York School artists. Throughout the first half of the 1940s, Jackson Pollock, Arshile Gorky, William Baziotes, Peter Busa, Robert Motherwell, and others met frequently with Matta to learn about his personal ideas about Surrealism.

In the mid-1940s, Matta's work changed dramatically. Responding to the continuing horrors of the Second World War, Matta expanded his artistic interests beyond his exploration of the subconscious mind. He moved towards a more active engagement with the world in a series of works that he called "Social Morphologies." Many of Matta's paintings from this period incorporate strangely menacing, machine-like contraptions and totemic human forms. He pitted these elements against each other in seemingly constant battle within a landscape of amorphous spaces and vaguely architectural planes. These works have a new emotional immediacy, reverberating with a formal tension created by the often violently oppositional forms.

Matta enjoyed increased professional and creative success in the mid-1940s. Yet, his new use of figuration and narrative created a significant intellectual rift with both the Surrealists and Abstract Expressionists. Matta's life was further thrown into chaos in 1948, when his close friend, Arshile Gorky, committed suicide. Many in the New York Surrealist circle blamed Matta, who had been having an affair with Gorky's estranged wife. Breton publicly expelled Matta from the Surrealist group. This action has been attributed not only to Matta's social infraction, but also to his increased interest in exploring social and political issues through his work.

Ostracized by the artistic community in New York, Matta returned to Europe in 1948. He moved first to Italy, and then, beginning in 1955, kept residences in both Paris and Rome. The Surrealists eventually invited Matta to rejoin their group in 1959. He declined their offer, preferring instead to continue his artistic explorations on his own.

Late Period

Matta traveled widely throughout Europe, Latin America, and Africa during the 1950s and 1960s. During this time, he became even more politically and socially engaged. Matta wholeheartedly believed that art could be a powerful agent for societal change. Much of his work during the next two decades was created in explicit response to contemporary events like the Civil Rights movement and the wars in Vietnam and Algeria. His paintings also became more narrative in the 1950s. They frequently featured totemic figures set within multi-planar environments filled with strange, science-fiction-like machines.

Beginning in the 1960s, Matta dedicated himself to political and social issues in Latin America. During this time, Matta also traveled multiple times to Chile. He strongly supported Salvador Allende's Socialist government, and the newly elected president even invited Matta to be Chile's cultural attache. The artist found great professional and spiritual fulfillment in his home nation until the rise of Pinochet's military dictatorship in 1973. Perhaps the zenith of Matta's engagement with Latin American cultural themes was his group of works produced in 1983 titled, El Mediterano y el Verbo Americas. In this series of poems and paintings, Matta created an analogy between the Latin American and European cultural renaissances. He presented the idea of "America" as verb - constantly moving, evolving, and changing.

Matta was the subject of several significant exhibitions in the later half of his career. Most notably, he received retrospective shows at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1957, the National Gallery in Berlin in 1970, and the Pompidou Center in Paris in 1985. During these years, Matta broadened the scope of his artistic practice. He began adding clay to some of his paintings in the early 1960s, and over the next thirty years experimented extensively with printmaking, tapestry, ceramics, furniture making, and sculpture. Many of Matta's works from his final decades exhibit a lightening of tone and color, and a turn towards more timeless, mythological, and mystical subject matter.

In his last years, Matta split his time between France, England, and Italy, where he operated a studio, gallery, and pottery school. He continued to travel, work, and engage with contemporary political concerns until his death in Civitavecchia, Italy, in 2002.

The Legacy of Roberto Matta

Throughout a long and fruitful career that spanned six decades and multiple continents, Matta established himself as one of the central figures in the Surrealist movement. Yet, while he certainly shared stylistic and intellectual similarities with the Surrealist group, he was never able to completely reconcile his strong social conscience with its necessarily inward-looking practices. Instead, Matta balanced his interest in the human psyche with an active engagement with the external world. In the process, he provided early and crucial inspiration for the Abstract Expressionists. Matta's artistic legacy was also a deeply personal one, as four of his six children became notable artists as well. Most celebrated among his progeny was the contemporary artist Gordon Matta-Clark, who followed in his fathers footsteps by creating socially conscious work with a distinctively architectural bent.

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Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Roberto Matta Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by David Kupperberg
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 05 Dec 2013. Updated and modified regularly
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